Missionaries in Japan cope with quake's toll

3/14/2011

 A UMNS Report by Linda Bloom*

The Sunday after the biggest earthquake in Japan’s history was a time of fellowship and thanksgiving for the staff at the Asian Rural Institute in Nasushiobara, Japan.

Although the earthquake’s epicenter lay about 200 miles to the north, the local church, Nishinasuno, had suffered structural damage. So the institute’s staff, including Jonathan McCurley, a United Methodist missionary, invited people from the area to come and worship.

“This was a chance for us to share the gospel, a meal and gather information from one another,” he wrote in an e-mail.

In Tokyo, the Rev. Claudia Genung Yamamoto, a United Methodist missionary, discarded her planned Sunday sermon text at West Tokyo Union Church, where she has served as pastor for nearly 17 years.

Instead of speaking about the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, she focused on Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”

As of March 14, the official death toll from the earthquake and tsunami stood at 1,833, but thousands more are thought to have died, according to news reports.

All United Methodist missionaries and volunteers in Japan are safe, according to the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. But, along with everyone else in Japan, they are feeling the aftereffects of the March 11 disaster.

“The next day, as the tremors continued, we all gathered at 7 a.m. as usual and decided that we needed to take care of the animals and get the buildings checked to know what was safe and not,” he said.At the Asian Rural Institute, the staff escaped outside as the windows on buildings shattered. Students have not yet arrived for the coming school year, and most volunteers were out planting in the fields, said McCurley, who is in ministry there with his wife, Satomi.

Broken pipes resulted in water damage to most of the buildings. The building housing the dining hall, kitchen, chapel, meeting room and computer room sustained significant structural damage and is unsafe, he reported. “That will be a big undertaking to replace as we don't have any earthquake insurance.”

Even far away, the nuclear threat remains a concern. “Because the plants are still unstable, we know that there is a chance of effects coming to our area,” McCurley said. “Please pray that God will give protection to us and this area and give the ability to the engineers to get the situation under control.”

They have been warned “of another very large aftershock in the next few days,” he noted, and remain concerned about radiation fallout from the damaged nuclear plants, even though the wind direction and current potency levels of blowing radiation “give us some, if little, comfort.”

“But we also were told that from today (Monday), eastern Japan will have controlled blackouts, meaning we will have three-hour blocks without electricity, for how long we still don't know.”

The rolling blackouts were hitting Tokyo on March 14 and school was canceled, Yamamoto reported, but life seemed “fairly normal … except for the tension in the air.” On Sunday, people were concerned about the aftershocks “but still went out to do shopping and other activities.”

The biggest fear, she admitted, is the uncertainty over the nuclear situation. “Thirty percent of Japan's electricity is run by nuclear power plants, the rest by water and other resources,” she explained. “Now we are worried about the meltdown of these reactors. It is affecting all of us.”

People are asking for prayers. The United Methodist Committee on Relief is collecting donations for Japanese earthquake relief.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.